A cellphone plan to bridge digital divide

Firms and feds offer free connections to customers shut out by high costs.

Julia Gran

A year ago, Christina Beck had no access to a telephone. The single mother of a 2-year-old son, she could no longer afford her monthly phone bills and was forced to use her roommate’s work cellphone to make doctor’s appointments or call her family.

Then, sitting in front of the television in her Boston apartment one evening, Ms. Beck saw an advertisement for SafeLink Wireless, a program launched by prepaid cellphone provider TracFone Wireless that provides free mobile service for low-income individuals.

Beck applied online at her local library. Five days later, the phone, equipped with 80 minutes of free call time per month, arrived in the mail.

“When I saw [the ad] and saw that it was free, I thought it was wonderful,” says Beck, who qualifies for welfare benefits. “It helps people out like me ... people who can’t afford phones.”

While “the digital divide” often refers to computers, low-income families also struggle with a divide over phones. Potential employers and emergency services often revolve around telephone lines, but some 6 million Americans – almost 2 percent of households – go without them. SafeLink Wireless has helped bridge that gap in 17 states.

SafeLink grew out of the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program, launched in 1984 to provide discounted land line access for low-income families. But “traditionally [Lifeline programs] have been under-utilized,” says FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield. In 1996 the government expanded the service to mobile phones to “help boost participation in the Lifeline program and ... give low-income families an option for phone service that met their needs.”

Other cellphone carriers – Sprint and AT&T – offer discounted cellphone services through the Lifeline program. Tracfone says it is the first to offer free cellphone service through the $10-per-customer government subsidy.

In July, Virgin Mobile USA plans to begin providing its own free cellphones for qualifying Lifeline residents in New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

The TracFone program began last August in Tennessee, providing free phones to residents who participate in state or federal assistance programs or individuals whose total household incomes are at or below 135 percent of the poverty guidelines set by the state or government.

The program has since grown to include 17 states and more than 13 million eligible customers, says Jose Fuentes, director of government relations for TracFone Wireless. He would not say how many have actually signed up.

This month, the program expanded to Alabama, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.

The allotted minutes vary by state from 41 minutes to 80 minutes, and any unused time rolls over to the next month. If a family goes over the allotment, it can purchase a TracFone Airtime card at a local retailer.

The free cellphones come with voice mail, caller ID, call waiting, and text messaging, as well as the capability to call 60 countries, says Mr. Fuentes. After using the service for a year, customers can reapply if they are still eligible.

“As technology changes, the FCC saw that there was a change going from land line usage to more individuals purchasing cellphones,” Fuentes says. “We felt there was a need for this service on cellphones.”

In May, the US government announced that the number of American homes that only used cellphones had for the first time surpassed those that only had land lines.

“Having a cellphone is not a luxury anymore,” Fuentes says. “Now, it’s almost an inherent right to communication.”

As cellphones grow more popular among Americans, pay phones are quickly disappearing. In 1997, the US had more than 2 million pay phones. In 2007, they numbered 870,000.

In Boston, Francella Lord-Bryan remembers a time when she was out and trying to call her family for a ride, but was unable to find a pay phone. Ms. Lord-Bryan used to own a cellphone, but the costly bills forced her to give it up.

“You get stranded sometimes and I don’t have a car,” she says. “You cannot find a pay phone anymore.” Now, Lord-Bryan relies on her SafeLink phone.

And in Beck’s Boston neighborhood, she says that it’s not uncommon to have neither a land line nor a cellphone.

“I know my neighbor has no phone at all in her house,” says Beck, who once had to use a borrowed phone to call a poison-control line.

Not having access to a cellphone poses significant disadvantages for low-income families, specifically individuals who are looking for work, says Nicholas Sullivan, author of “You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy.” One disadvantage he notes is that people without cellphones are less likely to receive calls about work opportunities. When they do, it’s often too late.

However, providing cellphones, he says, has many advantages. In 2008, Mr. Sullivan released a study focused on the economic benefits that were possible if low-income Americans owned a cellphone.

The study, compiled from two surveys, reported that 40 percent of blue-collar workers were able to increase their income by owning a cellphone.

“Their work is very mobile and a cellphone allowed them to stay in touch more,” Sullivan says.

Survey participants who used cellphones to obtain work earned $748.50 more a year than those who did not have cellphones. For lower income families, the advantage was a little lower, but participants earning $35,000 a year or less still reported making an additional $530 per year if they used a cellphone to job hunt, according to the study.

“I think the technology is such an empowering tool,” Sullivan says. “It gives people more strength and the ability to manage their own lives and ideally create their own income.”

Besides work benefits, the survey also focused on security and safety. Sullivan says survey respondents preferred a cellphone to a land line by more than a 3-to-1 ratio for emergency uses. Safety “still seems to be what people look to as the No. 1 attribute” of owning a cellphone, he says.

For John Cobb, a retired, disabled resident of Greensboro, N.C., safety has been his top concern for getting a cellphone through SafeLink. Though Mr. Cobb has a land line, he wanted to have a cellphone to use in case of emergencies.

So far, he has used his free phone only to check his voice mail, but still carries it with him everywhere he goes. Without the program, Cobb says he wouldn’t be able to afford a cellphone, since the $674 he receives a month “does not go far” after paying the costs of his medicine and rent.

“I feel [cellphones] are necessary,” he says. “I’m glad somebody is helping people in my situation out. We are in a new era, especially with the economy the way it is…. For somebody to do this, it’s the greatest thing to ever happen.”

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